I don't scare easily.
I scoff at haunted houses. I laugh in the face of supernatural terror. Witches, goblins and ghouls provoke little more than shrugs from me. Zombies make me giggle. I see Dracula, and no matter how good the makeup job, I'm picturing The Count from Sesame Street. I'm the guy who would take the dare and spend the night in the creepy old abandoned mansion on the hill without a second thought.
In short, I ain't, as a wise man once said, afraid of no ghost.So I'm not sure how to explain the shiver that ran up my spine as I trundled out to meet Dan Jungles, founder and chief investigator of the Will County Ghost Hunters Society. It seemed like a harmless idea when I was setting it up -- I would take these ghost hunters on a brief tour of supposedly haunted places in Aurora, and see what they turned up. Fun way to spend a Monday night, right?
So there we all were, bundled up in our parking lot -- several ghost hunters, Beacon News photographer Heather Eidson and yours truly. For the past few minutes, we'd been waiting for the rest of Jungles' team to show up, and periodically, his cell phone would ring -- another ghost hunter looking for directions.
Jungles is a tall, bald man with a businesslike demeanor. He takes this ghost hunting thing very seriously, although it's obviously a lot of fun for him, too. (His cell phone ringtone? "Ghostbusters," of course.) He's been a professional ghost hunter for five years, starting the Will County Ghost Hunters Society in Joliet in 2001.
He enthusiastically explained to us the tools of the trade, and they're surprisingly scientific.
There's a temperature gun -- it fires a beam of light that tests the temperature of any spot it lands on. The ghost hunters use this to find cold spots. If you remember your Sixth Sense lore, ghosts make any place they're in noticeably colder.
Then there's the electromagnetic field detector, which detects -- you guessed it -- electromagnetic fields. Translation? There's energy all around, and this device lets you know when more of it is concentrated in a certain area. It's believed that ghosts have their own electromagnetic fields, and higher readings may mean a spirit is present, Jungles said.
"Normally, these will read between 1 and 1.5," he explained. "We're looking for readings between 2 and 8."The ghost hunters have digital cameras, both the video and still kind, and they've brought plenty of backup batteries. The reason, they said, is because ghosts like to drain camera batteries, often for a laugh. Anita Spero, one of the newer ghost hunters, said she was once in an old church, looking for spirits, when all of her camera batteries were drained at once. She tried them all, even the ones in her bag, and they were all dead.Yeah, that spooked me, too.These guys were full of stories like that one. There were eight ghost hunters in total, all women except for Jungles, and perhaps the most intense of them arrived last -- Kathy Stinson, the second-senior member of the group. Stinson believes she's a sensitive, and can feel the presence of ghosts and see them in mirrors and other glass surfaces.I may be giving the impression the Will County Ghost Hunters are strange people, and nothing could be further from the truth. All eight of them struck me as regular folks, albeit regular folks with a fascinating hobby. But when they hit a supposedly haunted scene, they are professionals, with the coordination of a small army.And above all, they really, really believe that there are ghosts, and that they can find them.
*******Site No. 1: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Boulevard.
So here's the story with the Paramount. Like many old theaters, it has a ghost light -- a single bulb backstage, kept illuminated at all times so that the spirits of departed actors can find their way back to the stage they once loved. And when we arrived, that was the only light burning.
I've been in the Paramount probably a dozen times and never been creeped out by it, but this time was different. Shadows crept along each of the walls, turning the majestic ornamentations into shades of vicious things, ready to pounce.The ghost hunters went directly to work. They took note of the newly-finished grand gallery, which opened to the public just last month. Renovations, Jungles said, often disturb the energy of an older building and stir up spirit activity.
The team split up, each taking a different quadrant of the theater. Some stayed on the stage, taking temperature readings and checking for electromagnetic spikes. Meanwhile, one group headed upstairs to the old dressing rooms, and it was that group that found something.
It was Spero, with the temperature gun: "It's just dropped from 72 to 59 degrees in 10 seconds," she said, springing the others into action.
There's nothing haphazard about ghost hunting. When the team believes they've found a spirit, they follow a strict protocol. One member will get out a small audio recorder, while the others grab video and still cameras, trying to capture evidence of a presence in the room.
The audio recorder is used for a process called EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon. While all the hunters stand silently in a circle, one member, in this case Jungles, will ask questions of the spirits in the room. The idea is that, once the audio is cleaned up, you might be able to hear responses from beyond the grave.
I cannot overstate just how spooky this is. Everyone is quiet, and if someone moves around, or coughs or says anything, the other members note it aloud so that the sound is not mistaken for evidence of ghosts later. The team is meticulous, and very concerned with avoiding false positives -- they want only real evidence.
So we stood there, in the dark, Jungles asking questions."Is anyone here?"
"Can you tell us your name?""Do you know what year it is?"We heard nothing in return, but then, we didn't expect to. It's all about examining the evidence later, like the pros on CSI working a crime scene.
On the way out, several of the ghost hunters swore they could see someone moving about in the control booth, high in the back of the theater. With the gracious assistance of Nicole, one of the Paramount's staff, we hiked up to the booth. We found no one, but recorded an EVP anyway.
"Do you know why we are here?""Did you love it here in the theater?""Is your name Gerald?"Wait, what? Gerald? How did he know that? Was Jungles pulling my leg here, or did he really know the name of the spirit he was trying to contact?Jungles explained later that it wasn't a moment of psychic ability, but rather a bit of good detective work.
"It's on the plaque near the stairs," he explained. "Gerald Klose. It's who the control room is dedicated to. We notice things like that."
******Site No. 2: Riverfront Playhouse, 11-13 S. Water Street Mall.
So I'd had a conversation with Sherry Schultz, owner of the Riverfront Playhouse, a few days before. She was very excited to have the Will County Ghost Hunters in her theater because she's certain it's haunted.
The playhouse has been open for 28 years, and Schultz has been in charge for 25 of those. She says every now and then, a crucial prop or costume piece would go missing, and she and her crew would search for days for it. And each time, just when they were about to give up, the missing item would turn up, laid out in plain sight, in a place they were sure they'd already looked.
"We usually attribute those to my mom," Schultz said. "She loved the theater, loved to come here and see shows."Jungles and his band listened intently to Schultz' stories about her mom, and didn't seem all that surprised when the front door flew open with a loud bang, as if on cue. Schultz and Jungles joked about it. Me? I freaked right out.
Unfortunately, Schultz and her troupe were rehearsing for their latest show when the ghost hunters arrived. Jungles explained that not only was the atmosphere not right for recording audio, but that all the photographs they would take would probably be thrown out, due to dust. We decided to move on to the next location, but not without first asking if we could come back another time, when the playhouse would be quieter.
******Site No. 3: William Tanner House Museum, 305 Cedar Street.
As soon as we pulled up to the Tanner House, the ghost hunters knew we'd hit paydirt.The old home was built in 1857 and was owned by William Tanner, one of the earliest settlers of Aurora. The Tanners raised nine children in that home and lived there until they died, near the turn of the century. Two of the Tanner children remained in that home until 1934, the year both of them died. Since then, its been a museum, full of antiques and period furniture.
How do I know all this? Thank John Jaros, the executive director of the Aurora Historical Society. Jaros met us at the museum, gave us a tour and a brief history lesson, and then let the ghost hunters loose.Jaros talked about a former curator of the museum, one who swore ghosts inhabited the building, though he stopped short of saying he believed in spirits himself. He and I were in the same boat, and we shared knowing, skeptical glances.
The team split up again, with one group headed upstairs to the master bedroom, and the other, led by Stinson and Spero, bound for the downstairs parlor. According to Jaros, a number of wakes had been held in that parlor, a little factoid that excited the group.
Heather and I decided to camp out with the downstairs group, and Jaros joined us for another spooky EVP session. But it was when we tromped upstairs that the really weird stuff started happening.
The first thing our ghost hunters noticed was an indentation in the bed, as if someone had been sitting on it. Stinson quickly asked Jungles and his group if anyone had been doing so.
"No," Jungles replied. "I thought someone might have been, so I pulled it tight before we left."So, OK, goosebumps up and down my arms, even though my natural reporter's skepticism was screaming at me that this was obviously a set-up. The ghost hunters did their thing, checking temperatures, and surprisingly, the indentation showed an 11-degree difference from the rest of the bed.Jungles, Spero and all the rest were convinced there was a ghost in that room, sitting on the bed, right in front of us.
The team snapped what seemed like a thousand photographs, and Heather Eidson did, too. As she scrolled through them, looking at what she'd captured, her jaw dropped. She called me over and showed me what she'd found. Five or so consecutive pictures of the bed, without moving the camera, and in each one, the indentation looked different. It had moved, as if whatever spectral being sitting there had shuffled around.
So I was truly freaked out then, and I barely noticed as the ghost hunters told me the temperature was back to normal, and whatever was there had departed. Jaros, as well, looked a little stunned, as if he'd ... well, seen a ghost.
We left the Tanner House elated, with a promise to return and spend more time there at a later date. I spent the drive back to the Beacon wondering about my long-held skepticism, and whether it was just easily shattered by circumstantial evidence, or if I'd really just had an encounter with the supernatural.
--Epilogue: The harsh light of day
Two days later, Dan Jungles emailed me with the results of his group's investigations. They found nothing at the Paramount or the Riverfront, but Jungles said they snapped photos of a ghost at the Tanner House, and recorded a woman's voice answering questions in the upstairs bedroom. The photos and sound are up at their website: www.aghostpage.com.
I'm of two minds about the whole thing. My skeptical nature has figured out a dozen ways that the whole thing could be a hoax. The photos are grainy and inconclusive. The voice recordings are, of course, from the only EVP of the night that I didn't sit in on. Heather Eidson's pictures don't show the indent in the bed moving nearly as much as I remember, so it was probably just the excitement of the moment that made us think it did.
But then there's my childlike wonder -- the same thing that brings these ghost hunters out every weekend to look for the supernatural. And I keep thinking about it, and asking, what if ...?
Thanks to Laurie DiBerardino from the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for suggesting this story, and to the Will County Ghost Hunters: Dan Jungles, Kathy Stinson, Anita Spero, Cindy Johnson, Sarah Johnson, sisters Tracy and Stephanie Brandys, and Ashley Cavaness.